Lunch with a 103 Year Old Lady

Lunch with a 103 Year Old Lady

Clif Cleaveland, MD
18 July 2008

In this season of giving, I am grateful for the intangible gifts of special relationships, of friends, teachers, and kinsmen who have defined and refined my view of life. A recent lunch with my 103 year old Aunt Mary prompts these thoughts.

Last year, she voluntarily gave up driving her aged Oldsmobile. A minor stroke earlier this year led to her decision to give up independent living in her home for residency in a nearby retirement home. She has had to substitute bingo for bridge and can no longer attend the Baptist church to which she has belonged for many decades. But church members visit regularly. Her recent memory is a bit impaired. Her energy and sociability are not.

My wife and I alerted her to our November visit, suggesting a trip to her favorite restaurant, a nearby Golden Corral. She was dressed in her Sunday attire, purse over her arm, and ready to travel upon our arrival. Amid the myriad choices at the buffet, this slender lady chose her usual cup of soup, green salad, small dessert, and cup of coffee. Waitresses, manager, and customers welcomed her as one would a matriarch. "How are you doing, Miss Mary? It's nice to see you."

After reviewing the health of relatives, we turned our attention to the economy. She had married a farm manager in 1925 when the economy of the South was already in a swoon. For the first years of her marriage, she never saw any "cash money." The economy of her North Georgia neighbors worked on a barter system: so many eggs for so much corn meal or flour. Her husband was elected to a board that dealt with rural electrification. After his first year of service, he received a cash payment of $25, the first money that she recalled actually holding.

The farm struggled for years, even as I made my first visit as a five year old. I was sent northward on a Greyhound bus, a note of instructions and identification pinned to my jacket. I gained my first sense of worth during that visit, helping to gather and to grade eggs. I worked with my Uncle and quiet, overall-wearing men. At the end of a hot summer day, we adjourned to a nearby creek for a swim. At night we listened to a radio while playing checkers before an early bedtime. Annual visits followed.

Later years brought prosperity-a new house and a growing egg business. My Uncle and Aunt continued to work hard and to live modestly, even gently, upon the land. A bad heart ended his life 40 years ago. A photo of the newly-wed couple, seated on the running board of a Model T Ford ("It had yellow spokes, and he was so proud of it.") hangs alongside her mirror.

When asked to name her hero, my Aunt immediately cites Franklin Roosevelt. "He saved the country." She recalls the hard times of the Great Depression without bitterness. "We didn't have much, but we had everything we needed." Limited resources of food and clothing were shared with those who had less. Workers in nearby textile mills were hardest hit. Even along country roads men, sometimes with their families, walked from farm to farm seeking work. Federal programs gradually returned people to work. The outbreak of World War II cemented the economic and employment recovery. Our shared lunch reminded me of some simple truths. We do not need sophisticated, electronic devices for our entertainment and well-being. A library book or Scrabble, checkers, or chess board can provide endless hours of pollution-free engagement of the mind. Conversation, without interruption of cell-phone sonatas, is a precious, yet undervalued activity. A walk can refresh the mind, while toning the muscles. A sense of community dilutes personal stress or sorrow.

Our lunch completed, we returned to the retirement center. Aunt Mary summed up her new situation. "I'll stay here as long as the Lord wants me to."